Segments and filters in Google Analytics

The real power of web analytics is felt when you separate different visitors groups into segments.  As with everything, the average is a mathematical concept and doesn’t actually apply to anyone.  Much more meaningful is to look at groups of visitors with something in common.  You may want to look at visitors who visit on at the weekend, or who have made a purchase.  You may want to exclude all those visitors from overseas as they are not your market!  The list is endless.

Google Analytics does provide powerful segmentation options though these are not quite so intuitive as say ClickTracks which puts segmentation right at its heart.  On the other hand, the flexibility of the segmentation offered by GA is excellent – awesome even!

So lets look at what Google Analytics offers by way of segmentation.  Firstly it is important to differentiate between filters and segments.  Filters are defined at the settings level whereas segments are defined within the reports section.

Google Analytics Filters

Filters are applied to the data before it is anlalysed.  You may want to exclude internal traffic from the data, or look at traffic on a specified sub folder for example.  You can set up different profiles for your site and apply different filters to each profile.   So you may have one profile that looks at the site as a whole, one that looks at internal traffic only, one that looks at a particular sub domain.

Bear in mind that the purpose of filters is to look at different chunks of the data from a particular website.  Don’t use profiles to look at data from different websites.  Each website should have its own account otherwise all sorts of problems can arise not least that you can only have one Adwords account associated with any one Analytics account.

Because filters are applied to the data before it is analysed, you cannot look at filtered data from before the filter was defined.

Google Analytics Segments

Segments seem at first to be very similar to filters but they are really fundamentally different.  Segments are applied retrospectively to the data which means that they can be applied to all data from the time GA was first set up for a website.

Segments are set up from the reports dashboard.  There are a number of preset segments but the real power lies in the custom segments.  These can be defined from any combination of what GA calls ‘dimensions’ and ‘metrics’, in effect any group that relates to something that Google Analytics provides information on.

Metrics are quantitative, that is they have a number. For example bounce rate is a metric. Dimensions relate to visitor characteristics, so being a new visitor is a dimension, as is the geographical location from which the visitor accessed a website. When using segments, the difference doesn’t really matter but it is interesting to understand how GA is thinking.

To define a custom segment, click on Advanced segments and then on Create a new advanced segment.

As I say, the permutations that are available are immense but let’s consider how to look at traffic from the UK only.  This is achieved by choosing the dimension ‘country’ (simply hover the mouse over ‘country’ in the left hand column and drag it across to the dimension box).  Then select ‘match exactly’ and give this a value of ‘United Kingdom’.

Give your segment a name and then use the ‘test segment’ button at the top of the screen – as shown.  The GA screen can be confusing at this stage – if you try and test the segment before it has been named, it will say the segment is empty.  Also, there is a test segment button below the dialogue box but this relates to further sub-segments that have yet to be defined and should be ignored at this stage.

You may well want to segment your segment.  For example, you may be interested in only those UK visitors who completed a goal.  Sub-segments can be created using either ‘and’ or ‘or’ combinations of dimensions and metrics giving options such as defining sticky visitors as those who either view more than 4 pages or who stay on the site for more than 45s.

Segments have the potential to provide real insight into web visitors but as with all web analytics, the skill lies in carefully defining what you want to measure – in other words in the correct identification of the KPIs (key performance indicators) that drive the success of the site.


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